45. The syrup’s a bit off

Sunday June 21 2020

Earlier this year the company Land O’Lakes announced they would be changing the packaging on their butter by removing the “Indian maiden” image. Originally the image of the Native American Woman, who was given the name Mia, was kneeling and offering a tray of butter to the viewer. Her image was later updated to merely head and shoulders, I would guess to keep a visual connection to the brand, but taking away the subservient pose. The package of butter I bought last week on a grocery run does not have her image at all. Land O’Lakes has actually been rather quiet on the change, not making a huge deal or attempting to explain this decision.   

Since the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and all the protests over these past couple of weeks, a few other companies made announcements of some rather major branding changes. The first to hit the news was the Aunt Jemima brand of syrups and pancake mixes. Aunt Jemima is a fictional character giving a face to the brand since the 1893. Her name came from a vaudeville song and she first appeared in advertising as a round bodied, kerchief-wearing “dese pancakes dat make yo family happy” mammy to today’s contemporary headshot of a smiling woman of color with natural hair.

Ok, this is really awful, but it’s history and we can’t hide from it.
A 1910 advertisement from the New York Public Library’s digital collection at https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-fb83-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Aunt Jemima brand is owned by Quaker Oats, a subsidiary under the PepsiCo umbrella. Their proposed change is radical as they are planning to actually discontinue using the Aunt Jemima brand name. Quaker Oats claim they will stop using the image by fourth quarter of this year, then will change the name entirely sometime later.

Social media chatter is mostly positive about the change, challenged by some claiming they’re whitewashing the brand by removing the African American imagery.

After the Aunt Jemima announcement, other brands went into oh-shit mode.

Mrs. Butterworth, a brand sometimes confused with Aunt Jemima, is owned by ConAgra. They will do a complete brand and packaging review and will let us know later what they come up with. Their packaging is more ambiguous than Aunt Jemima’s; we’re not really sure what race this woman is. The syrup bottles have a vague mammy look, but the television commercials were voiced by a white woman. The company says she’s just a loving grandmother and never mind all racial nonsense that because they “stand in solidarity with our Black and Brown communities.”

Nancy Green was recruited to be the the face of Aunt Jemima in 1890. Her remarkable story is told here by the New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/obituaries/nancy-green-aunt-jemima-overlooked.html

Uncle Ben’s brand, owned by the privately-held Mars Company, is changing their branding, as well. The fellow started in a servant’s role during the 1940’s, but was promoted to Chairman of the Board in 2007. Mars says they will “evolve the brand.” Not sure what that means, so we wait to see. The Uncle Ben imagery isn’t as problematic as mammy brands, in my opinion. But when you consider the history behind the creation of the images, along with respecting culture appropriation, now would be a good time to take a deeper look at these brands should be represented.

B&G Food’s Cream of Wheat has been hit with similar criticism of their African American man who is portrayed as a cook. Same from this company, with a promise to review their branding.

These are all long-time brands and honestly, I’ve seen the packaging designs for so many years that I’ve accepted the branding with what I guess I could call blindness. Which is the sign of a successful brand, right? My preferred rice brand is Uncle Ben’s and finding it on the shelf is as easy as seeing the orange box with the black man logo. And package updating is common, Betty Crocker herself has been updated several times from housewife to feminist, but there is still enough of the original look for an absent-minded consumer to identify.

And yet…

We wouldn’t see a company today packaging a new product with a mammy image anymore than we’d see a Native American in full-feathered headdress. So why continue with these outdated and racially insensitive designs? You might say there’s never been a better time than now, but really, that’s not true. Especially with the Aunt Jemima brand, we’re about a 131 years too late.

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